Five months as a freelancer

Tell people in Singapore that you’re a journalist and they almost always ask, “SPH ah?”

They can’t be blamed for that assumption; the Big Two, Singapore Press Holdings and MediaCorp, are the biggest source of jobs for local journalists. There are many experienced, hard-working and talented journalists in both these companies, gathering news in Singapore and overseas every day. Unfortunately, The Economist described Singapore’s mainstream media as “insipidly sycophantic” for a reason. Our press freedom rankings also suck; something that the Prime Minister doesn’t take seriously but journalists should.

There are a number of international news organisations with bureaus or staff in Singapore, but such opportunities don’t come along very often. Even these big news organisations are downsizing, spreading their employees ever more thinly. Judging from research done on the journalism industry, journalists all over the world find themselves having to resort to ‘churnalism’ now and then – or even more regularly than that – to fill pages and airtime.

In this context, being a freelance journalist is practically a convenient necessity. A necessity because getting a job might be difficult if you don’t particularly wish to work for local mainstream media, and convenient because there are definitely perks that come with being a freelancer.

It’s been about five months since I moved back to Singapore and started this freelancing thing in earnest. I’ve always been a worrywart, but I now have a never-ending laundry list of tasks that run through my head. Get in touch with that contact about an interview. Reply that email. Edit that article. Draft that blog post. Send out a pitch. Wonder when that invoice is ever going to be paid.

One does not become a freelance journalist to earn big bucks. Neither does one do it for the glamour of the job, mostly because there is very little actual glamour in journalism. Earlier this month I was at a journalism conference in Hong Kong where CNN International anchor Kristie Lou Stout said she once heard the job described like this: “when the shit hits the fan, journalists run into the faecal spray.”

It’s a graphic description, and not all journalists – even the freelance ones – are dealing with crap all the time. But the fact remains that freelance journalism is not an easy or profitable activity. I have a sad, sneaky feeling that I might have actually spent more money (in terms of transport, meals and time) chasing some stories than I’ve been paid upon their publication. Attempts to square up my finances every month are plagued with the frustration of unpaid invoices and fluctuating figures.

Sometimes it feels as if freelancing means I’ll never have peace of mind again. When I’m snowed under with work I find myself staring wistfully at photos of my friends on weekend trips – trips that they have given up inviting me on because of my famously erratic schedule. When I’m not working, though, I’m feeling guilty about not being productive and freaking out about how this particular non-work-related minute is not going to be bringing in any income.

If I didn’t get any satisfaction from the stories I’ve worked on, this life would make no sense at all. But I do get satisfaction from these stories, and believe very strongly that they need to be told. I’ve spoken to migrant workers who have sustained grave injuries while building the city. I’ve talked to LGBT activists in the region about their advocacy work, and covered efforts to challenge patriarchy and rape culture in Singapore. I’ve enjoyed speaking to old protesters and detainees about a very different Singapore from the one I know today. And many more stories besides, experiences and people I’m still getting to know and writing about.

The benefit of being a freelancer is that I can tell these stories. If one editor shoots it down I’ll simply pitch it to another publication. If responses aren’t forthcoming, I can publish it myself.

In the telling of these stories I don’t have to toe any particular editorial line, or spend much time second-guessing the reactions of the powerful. I also don’t have to pretend that I peddle a View From Nowhere. As a freelancer I get to navigate the challenging terrain that lies between my job as a journalist and my passions as a member of Singapore’s civil society. Every day I learn about being professional, fair, balanced and ethical even as I do my best to highlight stories that will hopefully contribute to the betterment of people’s lives.

At the end of the day I see freelance journalism as a privilege; I am extremely lucky to be in a position to be able to do this day in, day out. I don’t know how long this good fortune will last. The day could come – it could even come sooner rather than later – when the need for a steady wage packet outweighs the freedom of self-employment. And I’d be stupid to turn down a full-time gig at a major media organisation should an opportunity come by.

But until that day I remember how lucky I am, and keep chasing those stories. Regardless of the size of the invoice.

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